It was a cold January day, and all 105 members of the Idaho state legislature had gathered together in the red theater-style seats of the state Capitol’s Lincoln Auditorium for a mandatory four-hour training session on ethics. Among the speakers: a former Missouri state senator who landed in federal prison at age 35 after a campaign finance violation. The ex-con urged the quiet lawmakers, who seemed a bit stunned by his tale, to learn the law and stick to it closely. Whether the audience took the message to heart is an open question.
“There’s not a huge problem in Idaho — I don’t think there is,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, a Republican. “I know most of you well, I know your hearts. But there are things we can do to improve.”
As Bedke suggested, there’s no deep history of corruption in this largely rural state of just 1.6 million residents, where citizen-lawmakers write legislation for three months a year before returning to their farms, classrooms or offices. That’s led many Idaho officials to bristle at the idea that anything needs to change. But a series of recent scandals has begun to challenge that view.
Idaho lacks financial disclosure laws, has no state ethics commission and no “cooling off” period preventing public officials from signing up as lobbyists as soon as they leave office. There are few ethics laws and no one to effectively enforce the ones that do exist. In fact, the annual training amounted to perhaps the steepest ethics requirement the lawmakers face.
All that has contributed to the Gem State earning a score of just 62, or a D-, in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.